Opponent preview: Southern California Trojans

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This entry concludes our 12-part series, profiling Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. Check out the rest of them with Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Pitt, Western Michigan, Navy, Tulsa, Utah, and Army. I will now rest my forearms and hands in a cold-tub until game time.

The Overview:

There is no bigger game for the Irish than the season’s finale against Southern Cal. So much has happen to the Trojans since the day they beat the Irish last October. A season that opened with a 6-1 record came crashing down, with the Trojans splitting their final six games and falling far from their longtime perch atop the Pac-10. Then the fateful offseason that ended the Trojan dynasty — Pete Carroll exited Troy for the riches of the NFL, just before the guillotine of the NCAA came down on the neck of the football program. Joining Carroll outside of Heritage Hall was athletic director Mike Garrett, but not before Garrett handpicked Tennessee coach and former Carroll protege Lane Kiffin, who brought with him a staff filed with former Trojan coaches to replicate the previous regime. While the coaching staff is vintage Troy, the philosophy officially changed when new USC president Max Nikias forced Garrett into retirement and named former NBC announcer and one-time Trojan quarterback Pat Haden athletic director, and returned Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy.

The Trojan team the Irish face this year returns the most talent of any team on the schedule, but face a razor-thin margin for error, with their roster depleted to 57 players and a depth chart that’s scarily thin at multiple positions, including the offensive line. Still, it’s no secret that USC has owned Notre Dame of late, and the team the Irish will face in late November could be a scary team with nothing to lose, or a team ravaged by injury with little left to play for.   

Last time against the Irish:

With 13 minutes left in the game, the Irish trailed the Trojans by 20 points, and all the talk of Notre Dame being “back” was over. But once again, Notre Dame’s offense rose to the occasion, and behind Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate the Irish mounted a furious comeback. Playing without Michael Floyd (who dressed for the game), the Irish marched down the field in the games final seconds, and with one second left on the clock, Notre Dame had the ball on the Trojan four-yard line, and trailed by seven. Clausen had two options with the Trojans doubling-teaming Golden Tate, Duval Karama on the out-cut and Kyle Rudolph running the in-route behind him. He chose Kamara, who slipped, and the ball sailed to the turf, and the Irish’s fourth attempt to score from inside the ten yard was their last.

The Irish defense was again a major culprit, with the Trojans racking up 501 yards, and freshman quarterback Matt Barkley hitting wide open receivers for 380 yards, including 100 yard days by both tight end Anthony McCoy and wide receiver Damian Williams. Gary Gray came up with a clutch fourth quarter interception, but the Trojans’ first three drives of the second half all ended in touchdowns, and it was just too much for Charlie Weis’ squad to overcome. 

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents the Irish face this year, I rank USC the toughest game on the schedule.

      1. Southern California Trojans
      2. Utah Utes
      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Pitt Panthers
      7. Stanford Cardinal
      8. Purdue Boilermakers
      9. Navy Midshipmen
      10. Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
      11. Army Black Knights
      12. Western Michigan Broncos

Let’s make no mistake, the final two games on the Trojan schedule are their bowl games. If USC can beat Notre Dame on Thanksgiving weekend then beat USC UCLA at the Rose Bowl, the sting of sitting out bowl season won’t be anywhere near as harsh.

The Match-up:

Matt Barkley is back leading the Trojan offense, building off an impressive rookie campaign. He’ll lose primary target Damian Williams and tight end Anthony McCoy, but the receiving corp is littered with blue-chip talent like Brice Butler and Ronald Johnson. As usual, there will be plenty of running backs to chose from, with Allen Bradford and C.J. Gable getting the first crack and freshman phenom Dillon Baxter likely ready to contribute after a disciplinary suspension. The Trojans also have All-American fullback Stanley Havili sitting out the opener for a fight with a teammate, but he’ll be a versatile weapon at fullback. The offense will sink or swim on the play of the offensive line. There is talent there, but the depth is downright scary. Injuries could force USC to improvise, and there isn’t much room to freestyle with the current roster.

Defensively the Trojans should be an improved unit from last year, especially with the infusion of Monte Kiffin to coach. Defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron also has a reputation for getting the most out of his defensive line, and if he can keep guys like Nick Perry, Armond Armstead and Jurrell Casey healthy, this will be the strength of the defense. The linebackers have great depth, though they lack the top-end talent that’s been a staple of the Trojan ‘backers before them. The secondary needs to replace all four starters, though Shareece Wright is back after sitting out last season with off-the-field problems.

How the Irish will win:

Defensively, the Irish will find a way to win the line of scrimmage, and the offensive line the Trojans are starting is one of their weakest since the start of the Pete Carroll era. With the ability to get pressure on Barkley with four or five guys, the secondary can contain the big play and the mobile linebacking corp can stop a USC running game that lacks the star-power of the past. Offensively, the spread offense has given Pete Carroll and the Trojans fits, and they’ll be running the same defense under Orgeron and Kiffin, so expect the Irish to move the ball better than they have in the past. Even the strong defensive line won’t be as quick to rush the passer with Dayne Crist sitting five yards deep and getting the ball out of his hands quickly. Play a clean game and keep the turnovers and penalities in check, and the Irish will finally take down the Trojans, although one year too late to do it against Carroll.

How the Irish will lose:

It isn’t hard to figure out how the Trojans beat the Irish. They’ve done it the past eight years, each time a bit different than the others. There’s plenty of skill on the Troja
n roster and the front-four
of USC could be a mismatch with the Irish offensive line. Matt Barkley has already been called the “next one” for the Trojans, and if a few offensive weapons emerge, they could become an explosive offensive team. If you throw out last season, the Trojans always seem to play their best football down the stretch, and with the Irish coming to town for the last game of the year in the Coliseum, you know the Trojans will be ready to fight.

Gut Feeling:

This game depends on what USC team walks out of the tunnel. If it’s the motivated, chip-on-their-shoulders Trojans, then it’s a coin-flip game where the Trojans will likely — and rightly — be favored. But if the last year showed us anything, between the cracked veneer of the Carroll era and the NCAA sanctions, this program is starting back at zero. It’s hard to predict what type of program the Trojans will be under Lane Kiffin, just like it’s difficult to tell what the Irish will turn out to be under Brian Kelly. The best part is, we’ll find out in a few days…

 

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)